Carnival Row and the Changing Face of Licensing

With so many amazing ‘geek friendly’ shows on television at the moment, it’s not rare that I start watching another and think ‘this would make an amazing RPG’. This was doubly the case for me with ‘Carnival Row’ (now showing on Amazon) since I used to work on Victoriana for Cubicle 7. So I was pleased, but also surprised, to see the sudden appearance of ‘The Carnival Row RPG’ as a free PDF from Nerdist Industries under license from Monte Cook Games. You can download it here.

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Most of the time we have to wait ages to see a licensed game. First an RPG company has to see the show and decide to make a pitch. This is often after the first season or two to see if it’s popular enough to warrant risking a new game line on. Even then, some properties won’t even allow an RPG license until a season or two have been shown. Then come the negotiations, which take time before the company can start working on a system and get writing a corebook. Even if they use a proven system the source material takes time to write and approve. By then the series might even have been cancelled! If not, the RPG has the two-edged sword of working on a current show (and getting better sales) and facing the problem that the next episode might invalidate large sections of the background. In some cases you are lucky and the show producers might offer some insider information, but that is very rare. It is important to note that having a licensed game does not mean you are having dinner with the show runner or chatting to the actors. Game licenses are usually dealt with by the production company’s marketing department and are in the same ballpark as mugs, pencils and calendars.

What makes the Carnival Row RPG special is that it has come about in an entirely different way. I had the opportunity to talk to Charles Ryan, Chief Operating Officer for Monte Cook Games to find out a little more. As Amazon had been advertising Carnival Row for quite some time, I wondered if MCG had approached them before the release. However, it was actually the other way around, with the Carnival Row people (Nerdist Industries and Legendary) being the ones to approach MCG about licensing the Cypher system. It turns out that they had been considering creating a game, and were already fans of the Cypher system. Given that MCG already has several setting books for Cypher, it was a natural fit.

This is what makes the whole process interesting. It seems that many video games and television show producers are noticing a good proportion of their audiences are often RPG players. We already saw a PDF detailing the setting of the Magic: The Gathering card game, but as Magic is made by the same people that make D&D it was a surprise it took that long.

More interestingly, earlier this year we saw Bethesda release an adventure in the Elder Scrolls setting using 5th Edition D&D. It caused a lot of excitement as many fans of Elder Scrolls relished the chance to actually role-play in the world of Skyrim, Tamriel and Elswyr. However, the plan horrifically backfired when it was discovered that the adventure was actually plagiarized from a popular DM’s Guild community content submission. It is unclear whether this was done knowingly or was simply an unfortunate accident, but Bethesda pulled the adventure almost immediately.

Very recently we’ve seen Wendy’s release a full fantasy RPG in PDF, with one outlet in New York giving away not only hard copies of the game but special Wendy’s dice as well. It has caused a stir in the gaming community but also anger from some quarters as it fails to credit the writers and most of the artists. It is difficult to know why this is. While a corporation like Wendy’s may have decided not to share the credit, marketing copywriters and artists are rarely credited, and they may have wanted to remain anonymous. Hopefully they were at least paid, as the game has been extremely popular and is actually very well constructed, if somewhat tongue in cheek. It would be nice to see it inspire a few more people to get involved in the hobby.

While its primary purpose may be to advertise a TV show, Carnival Row is designed to be a more serious ‘proper’ adaptation of a property into an RPG. The Carnival Row producers also went about things the right way, approaching an established games company and working with them to create their product. Clearly this was not some sort of last minute idea on the part of the Carnival Row team. MCG was approached some time before any trailers even appeared, and had to be kept in the dark about many details of the project for some time. This suggests the plan to create an RPG setting was far from an afterthought, and was even one of the main marketing strategies for the series. In fact, given that Nerdist Industries is owned by the same company as Geek and Sundry (Legendary) it was a natural progression. There is even a livestream game of Carnival Row, proving they understand the potential reach such actual play shows can achieve.

While this might be a sign of things to come, it is important to remember that license deals can be very changeable. The James Bond RPG (Victory Games) wasn’t allowed to use SPECTRE and so had to create a new villainous organization called TAROT. They also couldn’t use either Sean Connery of Roger Moore’s images and so had an artist create their version of Bond. For quite some time Firefly (TV) and Serenity (Film) were both separate licenses (as they were owned by different companies) despite being set in the same world with the same characters, making the RPGs a minefield.

There has also been quite a change in how games companies present licensed RPGs. Where a license was a TV or film property, the games used to use lots of stills from the source material. This made them instantly recognizable and often very plush. It also saved the RPG company a lot of art costs, balancing the license costs a little. However, the photographic RPG has quietly disappeared. In many cases this is because the RPG company has got the license for the book and not the film. While many adaptations are popular, they can often upset the purists or not catch the interest of the general public. Several recent RPGs have gone back to the (cheaper) book license rather than the TV or film one, such as One Ring (Cubicle 7), Dresden Files (Evil Hat), A Song of Fire and Ice and The Expanse (Green Ronin).

We have even seen a move from games companies to use art rather than photographs for a property that is only available as a TV or Film license. Star Trek (Modiphius), Star Wars (Fantasy Flight) and the forthcoming Alien (Free League) RPGs all use art instead of photographs and look amazing. Where once a game with photographs was the prestige form of the game, now a series of original artwork is very much in vogue, despite the additional costs. This may be due to the amazing talent illustrating many of today’s modern RPGs. But we have also seen more artists being granted greater recognition for their work (such as Simon Stålenhag's work in Tales from the Loop, and Jakub Rozalski's work in Scythe).

In many ways we should not be surprised by the appearance of the Carnival Row RPG. With the rise of more celebrities who game and writers who learned the art of storytelling from RPGs, more people making these shows are already gamers. So maybe this is a sign of things to come. An RPG is actually a very cheap option for a marketing campaign and it is an advert that will spread as gamers introduce their friends to your setting. The Carnival Row RPG had nearly 5,000 downloads in its first 24 hours.

If we are to see more production companies coming to RPG companies we have to ask what that means for gaming. For an RPG company it may simply create another minefield. While the costs are lower, nobody is making money on a free PDF, and the TV people will want to keep it free so it will spread. Remember, this is a marketing tool albeit a really cool and playable one. It also begs the question of what might happen with supplements and adventures. Will a TV company want to keep supporting their RPG once it has done the job they made it for? Interestingly while there are no current plans for Carnival Row supplements, the license apparently does not rule them out.

It is hard to know if we will see more products like Carnival Row. But with so many TV shows trying to get noticed in a growing fantasy and sci-fi market, I suspect we will. Perhaps we may see TV shows bidding against each other for an RPG company's time (I doubt that but it's a nice thought). However, I think we will see more RPGs in the mold of Carnival Row in times to come. How they affect the industry as a whole remains to be seen. But more games can’t be a bad thing.
 
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Andrew Peregrine

Comments

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
But that doesn't change the fact that getting more people interacting with their world via a free RPG product benefits their income-generating show and is intended to do so.
But, I return to... so what? As I said before - every game ever paid for*, benefits someone's income and is intended to do so!

Yes. Someone, somewhere, hopes to get money out of it. So far, nobody has laid out a reason why this should be a consideration. Why do we call out the financial point here, but not when any other game comes out?

"Hey, look, it is the Mouseguard RPG! Too bad, it was only created to make people money!" - said nobody, ever.



*We can expect that the Carnival Row game was paid for - just not directly by the end players.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
But, I return to... so what? As I said before - every game ever paid for*, benefits someone's income and is intended to do so!
So univoxs wasn't wrong when he IDed it as advertising. It was you who ascribed that as cynicism while now defiantly saying "So what [if it is]". Maybe you're the one who should be questioning why you went with the cynicism judgment in the first place.
 

5atbu

Explorer
Note, this is also a promotional product for Monte Cook Games.

Frankly, under socialism there will still be promotional products, badges, tie-ins and collectables.
 

MGibster

Adventurer
Note, this is also a promotional product for Monte Cook Games.

Frankly, under socialism there will still be promotional products, badges, tie-ins and collectables.
I could definitely get into Grasshopper & Ant, the latest RPG approved by the state apparatus. In G&A you play as a heroic worker ant being productive and protecting the products of his labor from parasite capitalist grashoppers.
 

Scarlet.Knight

Explorer
I am not sure if MTV started a trend, but it surely made popular the multi-media approach to selling art. The video clip became a very strong selling feature for songs and artists. I can't listen to Basket Case without getting a picture in my head of the Green Day members being placed in the same room in their hospital gowns... This trend is also present in other media, such as TV stations promoting some newspapers part of the same head corporation, and so on. This kind of synergy does sell or boost viewership.

I guess it was a matter of time before the trend became a bit more integrated, but it is far from being the first time. A lot of RPGs out there a based off of movies, TV shows, comics, novels, etc.: Firefly, Smallville, The Expanse, A Song of Ice and Fire, Starwars, The One Ring... I like when it goes the other way around, such as Kindred: The Embraced or D&D video games. A large chunk of TSR's profits apparently came from their derivative novels...

I personally like the synergy between the media and the RPG market. This Carnival Row RPG is a great idea, that came out quick enough to help each medium soar higher. When it comes to Wendy's RPG... well it is funny, it is interesting, but this one feels really like a purely marketing-y item. A well-made marketing campaign, but still marketing. I don't get the same vibe from Carnival Row RPG. Is it because it is free? Perhaps. But when companies come together to allow us to play and live in a known universe, I see it as... a privilege I guess. Not every innovation is an evil corporate ploy.
 

LuisCarlos17f

Adventurer
Disney doesn't need to buy WotC because it can create or recycle lots of old fantasy franchises. Not only Chronicles of Prydain, but for example Aladin TV show was practically "al-Quadin". Or they could buy a 3rd Party Publisher because it is cheaper. They don't need the d20 system nor the collectable card games.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Disney doesn't need to buy WotC because it can create or recycle lots of old fantasy franchises. Not only Chronicles of Prydain, but for example Aladin TV show was practically "al-Quadin". Or they could buy a 3rd Party Publisher because it is cheaper. They don't need the d20 system nor the collectable card games.
What on earth would a third party publisher offer Disney? They by definition lack the very thing Disney would be after: the IP.
 

LuisCarlos17f

Adventurer
Possible but not probable. I was thinking about a setting whose characters are anthropomorphic animals with a kid-friendly look. Disney could use characters of public domain, but then other studios could produce "clones" or "mockbusters".
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Possible but not probable. I was thinking about a setting whose characters are anthropomorphic animals with a kid-friendly look. Disney could use characters of public domain, but then other studios could produce "clones" or "mockbusters".
Which super-valuable and super-popular animal-themed third party D&D setting are you imagining Disney would want to buy rather than buy "D&D"?
 

LuisCarlos17f

Adventurer
Something like Humblewood, by hit point press.





Other option could be Pugmire and Monarchies of Mau by Onyx Path.





We can remember Disney made movies based in novels as "A Wrinkle in Time", "Escape o Witch Mountain", "The Great Dinosaur Robbery", or "Blackbeard's Ghost".
 
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aramis erak

Explorer
But, I return to... so what? As I said before - every game ever paid for*, benefits someone's income and is intended to do so!

Yes. Someone, somewhere, hopes to get money out of it.
There's an implication worth calling out in the quoth text: "ever paid for": not all RPGs are paid for implies other motivations besides money.

There are a lot of RPGs that are not done for monetary reasons, but for either psychopathological reasons (potentially including as an outlet for creativity and/or a desire for notoriety), or for genuine prosocial selflessness. Those are almost always free in electronic forms, and some (especially OSR titles) are free PDF with Dead Tree at printing costs.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Something like Humblewood, by hit point press.

Other option could be Pugmire and Monarchies of Mau by Onyx Path.
None of those brands mean anything outside the RPG industry. The only RPG brand which does is D&D. And if they want just want the concept of talking animals - well, Disney's well and truly there already.
 

LuisCarlos17f

Adventurer
You never know. Sometimes it is better to buy a old brand or franchise than the risk to be accused of plagiarism. Or maybe to buy copyrights to a little publisher company is cheaper than agreements with a best-seller writer. Possible but not probable.

Some IPs are sleeping gold reef, like franchises of previous decades fallen in the oblivion until they recovered in the remake. Lots of watchers of Supergirl teleserie remember nothing about that 80's movie.

But I guess to start from zero is better with an adaptation from other franchise. Blizzards didn't need Warhammer by Game Workshop to sell Warcraft videogame.
 

LuisCarlos17f

Adventurer
Maybe Mattel is nearer to be bought (by Hasbro o Disney). After the bankruptcy of Toys'R'us these aren't the best years. Today relation between Hasbro and Disney is good after breaking because Mattel published Ever After High, potential rival of Disney princesses. Mattel didn't want fusion with Hasbro nor to be bought by MGA (the company of the Bratz dolls).

I see videogame industry has better future than toys, and EA games or Square Enix are closer to be bought by Disney. Toys of marvel superheroes are more popular than the comics, but toy industry is suffering today there is a lower number of births.

The future of the TTRPGs is to be enough kid-friendly but also "shonen" style (teen and young adult males). Titles for adults as "World of Darkness" will not find a new generation of players so easily. They are like an urban tribe from a past decade. They are "old fashion" like the supernatural romances.
 

Rob Kuntz

Adventurer
I like quality stories. Give me the steak and not the sizzle and I don't care how much money people make or how much licensing they do to get there. If it's good it's getting mileage. Good product/good story/good service--it's the coin of the realm. That's why I like what they are doing with the DC franchise, especially with the great story in JOKER. As for RPGs being relevant as major franchise(able) material. I may be a heretic here, but the problem with D&D movies is that they are D&D movies first and FANTASY movies last. It's like the Greyhawk folks who splice hairs ad infinitum. What makes a D&D movie? The cart's before the horse folks and should be reined in: Forward to D&D 1974, EGG: "These rules are strictly Fantasy." I get D&D fanatics who say (and I've heard them MANY times) that is not D&D unless there is a skeleton in it (or other fill in the blank). If serious producers and directors start looking at that they wince. My two cents into the cash register.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I like quality stories. Give me the steak and not the sizzle and I don't care how much money people make or how much licensing they do to get there. If it's good it's getting mileage. Good product/good story/good service--it's the coin of the realm. That's why I like what they are doing with the DC franchise, especially with the great story in JOKER. As for RPGs being relevant as major franchise(able) material. I may be a heretic here, but the problem with D&D movies is that they are D&D movies first and FANTASY movies last. It's like the Greyhawk folks who splice hairs ad infinitum. What makes a D&D movie? The cart's before the horse folks and should be reined in: Forward to D&D 1974, EGG: "These rules are strictly Fantasy." I get D&D fanatics who say (and I've heard them MANY times) that is not D&D unless there is a skeleton in it (or other fill in the blank). If serious producers and directors start looking at that they wince. My two cents into the cash register.
The problem with D&D movies is that “D&D” isn’t a story. Lord of the Rings is a story; Star Wars is a story; Dragonlance is a story. D&D isn’t a story.

WotC is working really hard to change that, but they have to decide whether D&D is a tool for story creation (not a movie) or a story. Diluting it into a bunch of settings dilutes that, which is why they’ve been slow to do it. But they’re still doing it — FR, Ravenloft, Ravnica, Eberron in the current edition so far.
 

Rob Kuntz

Adventurer
The problem with D&D movies is that “D&D” isn’t a story. Lord of the Rings is a story; Star Wars is a story; Dragonlance is a story. D&D isn’t a story.

WotC is working really hard to change that, but they have to decide whether D&D is a tool for story creation (not a movie) or a story. Diluting it into a bunch of settings dilutes that, which is why they’ve been slow to do it. But they’re still doing it — FR, Ravenloft, Ravnica, Eberron in the current edition so far.
Well I believe we agree. Therein lies the problem for WotC. If they want something outside of Hasbro's massive push (starting in 2012 I believe though I might be off on the year) to brand all recognizable properties (Kool Aid, Rockem Sockem Robots, etc) for movie/tv/animation they need a good scriptwriter first and the marketing second. They can't be Transformers over night.
 

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